Editorial: Tell me lies about the 'great war'

IssueAugust 2014
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns


The British view of the world, even today, is fundamentally shaped by a 100-year-old lie, a powerful myth that contrasts German aggressiveness with the US-UK defence of small countries and high principles. In reality, it is a documented fact that the sovereignty of ‘plucky little Belgium’ was irrelevant to Britain’s decision to enter the First World War. In reality, it is a documented fact that the military alliances that Britain entered into were born of a desperate need to shore up its global empire.

Belgium the godsend

In the crisis of July 1914 that followed the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany tried to secure British neutrality in the war that was coming, first by offering to restore Belgian and French independence after the war (but making no such promises regarding French colonies). That offer on 29–30 July was followed by a more desperate appeal on 1 August: a commitment not to attack Belgium or France or to take French colonies – if Britain would remain neutral.

It was the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, who rejected these offers out of hand – and who (with prime minister Herbert Asquith) concealed them from the cabinet and from parliament.

Hilariously, the British government then accidentally declassified a telegram from Grey to the British ambassador to Germany, Edward Goschen, explaining the whole affair.

According to the telegram, the German ambassador, Karl Max Lichnowsky, had asked Grey ‘if Germany gave a promise not to violate Belgium [sic] neutrality we [Britain] would engage to remain neutral’. Grey wrote: ‘I replied that I could not say that; our hands were still free, and we were considering what our attitude should be.’

‘The Ambassador pressed me as to whether I could not formulate conditions on which we would remain neutral. He even suggested that the integrity of France and her colonies might be guaranteed.’

Grey said that he ‘felt obliged to refuse definitely any promise to remain neutral on similar terms, and I could only say that we must keep our hands free.’ Rather than negotiating to protect Belgian neutrality, and French territory, Grey preferred to close down diplomacy.

This telegram was accidentally included as ‘Document 123’ in a bundle of papers called Correspondence Respecting the European crisis, published by the British government on 5 August 1914 to justify the declaration of war on Germany the day before.

This selective and heavily-edited bundle was an early ‘dodgy dossier’, as historian Douglas Newton points out in his brilliant new book, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (Verso, 2014).

Newton, who is speaking at this year’s Peace News Summer Camp, concludes that the possibly-avoidable German invasion of plucky little Belgium was actually a godsend for the British war party. It obscured the way British ministers had helped to stoke the fires of war in July 1914. (Winston Churchill’s unauthorised concentration and then mobilisation of the first and second fleets were significant factors all by themselves.)

We leave aside the fact that plucky little Belgium had reduced the population of the Belgian Congo by roughly 10 million people during the preceding 30 years. (PN 2567) We leave aside also the hundreds of violations of sovereignty (generally of small nations) which were essential to the making of the British empire.

The German invasion of Belgium on 3 August 1914 seemed to create a simple story with an innocent victim and a single treacherous villain – who could then be blamed for the whole war.

Unlearning history

Serious historians find it harder to identify a single culprit or originator of the First World War, as Christopher Clark writes in his magisterial book, The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (Penguin, 2013): ‘There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character…. the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia.’

Winston Churchill described the British in a confidential memorandum on 10 January 1914: ‘[W]e are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves, in times when other powerful nations were paralysed by barbarism or internal war, an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.’

It is very difficult at this point to wipe away a century of encrusted propaganda and try to see the origins of the First World War more clearly.

Because Britain, France, Russia and the United States all fought together in the Second World War, it seems natural that they all fought together in the First World War. Because these nations all fought against Germany in the Second World War, it seems natural that they all fought against Germany in the First World War. The alliances and the antagonisms now seem predestined, laws of nature.

It is a shock, then, to discover that when we go back to the beginning of the twentieth century, global tensions centred on Britain rather than Germany.

In her much-praised The War that Ended Peace (Profile, 2013), Margaret MacMillan observes: ‘In the years before 1914, there could have been a war over colonial issues between Britain and the United States, Britain and France, or Britain and Russia – and in each case there nearly was.’

Britain and the US clashed in 1895 over a border conflict between Venezuela and British Guiana – a minor dispute that nearly led to war between the two English-speaking powers.

Clark writes: ‘Since Russia appeared to be pursuing an anti-British policy in Central Asia and the Far East, and France was a rival and challenger of Britain in Africa, the Franco-Russian Alliance [of 1894] appeared from London’s perspective to be a chiefly anti-British device.’

Britain responded with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 (countering Russian ambitions in China, and thereby protecting British control of India); and then, surprisingly, alliances with France in 1904 and Russia in 1907.

Clark comments: ‘neither the Entente Cordiale with France nor the Convention with Russia was conceived by British policy-makers primarily as an anti-German device’. During this period, Germany figured in British planning ‘mostly as a subordinate function of tensions with France and Russia’.

Clark emphasises that the Anglo-Russian Convention ‘was not driven by hostility towards, or fear of, Germany. It was rather the other way around: since Russia posed the greater threat to Britain across a greater range of vulnerable points, it was Russia that must be appeased and Germany that must be opposed.’

World War 1900?

Meanwhile, France’s assault on Africa threatened Britain’s own stolen property and future ambitions on the continent. In 1900, French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé attempted to enrol Germany in a military confrontation with Britain over Egypt. He saw this as possibly a world war, telling the French cabinet: ‘Some suggest a landing in England; others an expedition to Egypt; yet others advocate an attack on Burma by troops from Indo-China which would coincide with a Russian march on India.’

Unfortunately for Delcassé, the Germans refused to play along without getting something big in return: an explicit French affirmation of German sovereignty over the disputed territories of Alsace and Lorraine. This was unacceptable in Paris.

Delcassé’s thinking then gradually evolved. He concluded that French imperial objectives could best be pursued through co-operation rather than confrontation with Britain.

Clark explains that this would be achieved ‘by means of an imperial barter: the consolidation of British control over Egypt would be exchanged for British acquiescence in French control over Morocco.’ Hence the Entente Cordiale of 1904, formally entitled the ‘Declaration between the United Kingdom and France Respecting Egypt and Morocco’.

The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 was a similar imperial division of spoils in relation to Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet.

The problem for Britain was that it had a vast empire, which it could not really defend. It could not defeat its main rivals, France and Russia, so it had to form a three-way consortium of thieves with them.


Clark helps us to see that Germany did not cause its own isolation by its outrageous behaviour (the received wisdom) – Germany’s behaviour was in keeping with colonial practice.

The Anglo-Franco-Russian alliance system was not created to contain a threatening Germany: ‘it was not that antagonism to Germany caused its isolation, but rather that the new system itself channelled and intensified hostility towards the German Empire.’

As the alliance with Britain had closed down avenues for conquest in Central and East Asia, Russia was forced to focus on its remaining field of possible expansion: the Balkans, where Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany were hard to avoid.

In Paris, the Entente Cordiale left France with only one major enemy: the long-hated Germany. This new international system did not inevitably mean that Russia, France and Britain would go to war against Germany, but it provided a structure of incentives in that direction.

For Britain, the alliances with France and Russia were critical to maintaining the British empire.

The permanent undersecretary at the British foreign office, Arthur Nicolson, wrote in 1912: ‘it would be far more disadvantageous to have an unfriendly France and Russia than an unfriendly Germany. [Germany can] give us plenty of annoyance, but it cannot really threaten any of our more important interests, while Russia especially could cause us extreme embarrassment and, indeed, danger in the Mid-East and on our Indian frontier, and it would be most unfortunate, were we to revert to the state of things which existed before 1904 and 1907.’

The British ambassador to Russia, George Buchanan, wrote to Nicolson in April 1914: ‘Russia is rapidly becoming so powerful that we must retain her friendship at almost any cost. If she acquires the conviction that we are unreliable and useless as a friend, she may one day strike a bargain with Germany and resume her liberty of action on Turkey and Persia.’

On the eve of war, the anti-German specialist in the British foreign office, Eyre Crowe, put it thus: ‘Should the war come, and England stand aside, one of two things must happen. (a) Either Germany and Austria win, crush France, and humiliate Russia. What will be the position of a friendless England? (b) Or France and Russia win. What would then be their attitude towards England? What about India and the Mediterranean?’

Clark cites these observations from Nicolson, Buchanan and Crowe to support his argument that, for key British decision-makers, the circumstances of July 1914 meant ‘the logics of global and continental security converged in the British decision to support the Entente powers against Germany and Austria’.

In other words, protecting the empire was a major reason for Britain to take part in the war in August 1914.

Russia had been pursuing its imperial ambitions in the Balkans, which had led to a clash with Austria-Hungary and therefore with its ally, Germany. If Germany went to war with Russia, France was treaty-bound to support Moscow. If Britain wanted to maintain all its imperial possessions, it needed to persuade Russia and France that it was a true ally – it needed to back them up against Germany.


War was not inevitable in August 1914. There were paths away from disaster. (Douglas Newton is very clear on this.) War was also not inevitable between the particular alliances that are so familiar to us. The convention between Russia and Britain was coming under strain, and might not have been renewed in 1915. If war had held off for a few more years, the international scene might have looked quite different.

However, it does seem that the room for managing European imperial rivalries without major war had shrunk dramatically.

The only sound basis for avoiding war permanently would have been a dissolution of the European and US empires, large-scale disarmament, and the institution of something approaching equality between nations and peoples.

Instead, all the great powers took the opportunity of war to seek the enlargement of their domains. On 5 August, the morning after declaring war, the British government began considering the expeditions it could make to capture German colonies in Africa and further afield.

It is no accident that the British and French empires reached their greatest size after the First World War, after taking territory from Germany and from the Ottoman empire during the war. By 1922, Britain controlled almost a quarter of the world’s territory, and a fifth of the world’s population (458 million people).

We say again: an empire is a constant war. Global empires are constant world wars against conquered peoples. What the West calls the First World War was to a considerable extent bringing the war home to Europe. It is time for people in the West to abandon comforting lies and face up to the imperial realities of the ‘First World War’.

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